Carroll, Charles. "Rambles among the Formosan savages." The Phoenix 1,ix (March 1871): 133-4, 164-5.


Rambles Among the Formosan Savages

By Charles Carroll, Esq., H.B.M.Vice-Consul, Foochow.


[P. 133] The writer was stationed at Taiwan as British Acting Consul in 1866-7, when he collected the notes here given concerning the interior of Formosa and its semi-savage inhabitants.

The region about Taiwan is unlike the northern part of the island. Its proximity to the sea renders the air cooler and more invigorating than it is in some other parts, and the lofty peak of mount Morrison, 10,000 feet high, frequently covered with snow, adds to its salubrity.

Starting on foot from Takow, we journeyed in a north-easterly direction passing through the district city of Fung-shan-Hien (or Petow). The most important article of produce in this part of the island is without doubt the sugar cane, and we accordingly passed through long dusty roads skirted on either side with raised fields in which the cane, growing to a height of some ten feet, completely shut out from view the neighbouring scenery. The roads themselves are a feature peculiar to this part of China, and are made for the accommodation of the waggons or arabas in which the sugar cane is transported. These waggons are about 5 feet wide and are planted on two solid (i.e., without spokes) wheels; they are drawn by two, three, or sometimes four buffaloes or bullocks. The roads are made wide enough for two of these to pass, but in consequence of the utter absence of supervising care, are in summer little better than mud swamps, and in winter so deep in dust as to render walking a matter of difficulty and discomfort. We were therefore not sorry on the second day to leave the sugar districts and enter a region of rice fields, where, if the paths were narrow, we could at least see about us and get an occasional shot at a snipe or plover. The distinctive mark in the landscape about this part of our walk consisted in groves of the tall and graceful areca palm, of which the straight delicate stem with its crown of fair like leaves were to be seen clustered in hundreds round every village we passed. The bamboo, too, flourishes here in a beauty I have never seen elsewhere, sometimes growing in a thick impenetrable hedge, screening from sight some village or large farm, and sometimes in isolated clumps which stand out against the bright sky like plumes of waving feathers. Both at this part and all along our route we found the natives obliging and civil, the only thing of which we could complain being a rather obtrusive curiosity, which made it difficult to obtain a moment's privacy. This, however, can hardly be wondered at, as I believe we are the first foreigners who have passed along this route, the three or four others who have visited the savages having started from Taewanfoo.

We never had any difficulty in obtaining accommodation for the night, though that accommodation was occasionally none of the cleanest, and generally of a very limited extent.

From this we entered the hill country, and here our locomotion became so slow, and the route (path or road there was none) so devious and difficult, and I feared more than once that I should have been unable to proceed. Creeping on hands and knees up the side of a hill, along a ridge not two feet broad, and having to descend the other side by swinging down a long rattan rope, fastened to a tree stump, is no easy feat to one long unaccustomed to such exercise. Occasionally, too, we had to walk along narrow ledges of crumbling, shifting slate, at a height of some 150 feet from the river, which flowed beneath&endash;the hill-side being a sheer perpendicular wall of slate&endash;where a single false step or a moment's giddiness would have been certain death. Our route was principally along the bed of the large river mentioned above, which empties itself into the sea at a place called Tang-kong, some fifteen miles south of Takow. This river, which is in winter not more than thirty or forty yards broad, evidently increases to three or four times that breadth in the rainy summer season of Formosa, and, from the water-marks on the hill-sides, must rise in places to a great height. The current is exceedingly rapid; so much so that at places where we forded it&endash;the water coming up to the hips&endash;we were obliged to accept the assistance of the stalwart natives, and even then were in imminent danger of being thrown from our footing and dashed down the stream. At several points the hills on either side approached each other so close that the [p. 134] water rose to the sides of the perpendicular rocks, and then it was that we had to climb and descend by circuitous routes, in the dangerous manner described above, returning frequently to the river's course, after an hour or two hours' work, to within a few hundred yards of the spot we had left. It is not, therefore, to be wondered at that we never performed more than 40 li, or 14 miles in one day, and that an average day's walk was little more than half that distance, though this was generally attributable to the fatigue evinced by our coolies, who, being paid by the day, naturally made the day's work as light as possible.

When at last we arrived at the locale of the savages, we were informed that, with the exception of one or two old women and children, the whole village was out in the fields, and we were compelled to sit down on our baggage, and await their return. This did not take place till the shades of evening had fallen; and the chief and his wife being the last to arrive, it had by that time become so dark that torches were necessary to light us to the hut where we were to pass the night.

The appearance of these so-called savages contrasts more favourably with that of the Chinese. Tall, straight, and erect, they carry themselves on their limbs with perfect grace and ease, and display such a consciousness of strength and freedom in their faces, as cannot fail to excite admiration. I think, however, apart from their freedom of life, the absence of all luxury and effeminacy, and the other advantages of a savage existence, much of this strength and superiority of person must be owing to what is termed "national selection," or the "struggle for existence." I have no doubt&endash;though they would not acknowledge it&endash;that weak and sickly children are allowed to die, and that the task of reproduction falls to the strong and healthy, who naturally produce strong and healthy offspring. I feel convinced also that they are in the habit of destroying their female children, and am the more confirmed in this conviction from the fact that there was not in the village we visited a single female child or unmarried woman. Unfortunately, this did not strike me till after we had left the place; so I was unable to obtain any explanation from the people themselves.

The men wore black turbans, or caps made of deer-skin, blue or red jackets, with an outer jacket of deer or cheetah skin, and short kilts. The women were dressed in much the same fashion, with the addition, when at work outside, of blue-cotton gaiters, fastened round the lower part of the leg. The chief, a fine-looking man, about fifty years old, wore an eagle's feather in his turban. Their huts are made of reeds, and thatched with dried grass, with a door, or rather opening, on each side. At one end are placed two couches, also made of reeds, one on each side of the hut; and between these is a hollow scooped out for the fire, which is kept burning all night. They have no method of reckoning time, neither have they any divisions of years or months and were in consequence unable to tell their own ages. We saw no signs of cultivation, with the exception of a few melons; but they produce excellent rice (I believe, the best in the island), tobacco (better, in my opinion, than the Chinese), and millet. The hill-side all round the village was a thick jungle of tall grass, fully ten feet high, and each blade an inch in circumference near the roots. Through this were narrow tracks&emdash;so narrow, indeed, that the long blades crossed and mingled together in a manner truly embarrassing to those not accustomed to walk in such rank pasture, being so sharp and strong as to draw blood from our hands and faces whenever we came in contact with them. When the natives wish to make use of the ground, this grass is set fire to, and the required space thus obtained. It also serves them for fuel, for thatch, and various other purposes. Though in the immediate vicinity of the village we did not observe much timber, but from the hill-side we could get sight of the mountains rising on the other side of the river, along whose course we had travelled, and these were covered with large trees to the very summits.

The camphor-tree, though the drug is not exported from this place, is said to grow about here, and indeed the soil appeared to be rich enough to produce anything.

The people themselves appeared quiet and harmless, and, though greedy of gifts, treated us with deference and cordiality. This amiability does not, however, extend to their relations with the Chinese, or to savages not of the same tribe with themselves. The former they regard with implacable hatred, and the constant feuds between the tribes render is dangerous for the savages to move about save in parties of several at a time, and then all armed with guns, spears, and bows. We met one of these parties on our return; they arriving on one side as we arrived on the other side of a river. They all stopped at once, and would not venture to pass the stream until the natives who accompanied us had sat down, and I and my companions had advanced unarmed to the water-side to invite them over. They then crossed, sat down, produced their pipes, and smoked in peace. Had we not been present, however, it is not improbable that bloodshed would have taken place.

[P. 164] The whole eastern side of Formosa, from the coast to the centre of the island, is occupied by a range of lofty mountains. Between these and the broad plain of the western coast is a tract of hilly country, which runs from the north of the island to within about fifty miles of the south point, terminating about due east of the Port of Takow. Still further south and the level plain disappears altogether, the mountains rising abruptly from the sea-coast. At Taewanfoo the plain is about fifteen miles in breadth; then comes the low hilly country, and finally the high mountains of the interior.

The higher ranges which we passed in our visit to the natives were almost entirely composed of blue slate. Whenever it could be examined cropping out on the hill-sides, or in the ravines where the streams had exposed it, this rock was found to be exceedingly friable, and apparently easily acted upon by the atmosphere, water and other agencies. This facility of disintegration undoubtedly accounts for the great depth of fine soil in the valleys, and even on the most exposed parts of the hills. In most sections the strata exhibited a parallel arrangement; but in some places the bulk of the rock was made up of globular masses, one foot to six feet in diameter, on concentric laminae, piled on and fitting to each other. In other places elongated cylindrical bodies, about four inches to twelve inches in diameter, lay between the strata. These were of a very hard material, heavy, and having a dark, or light, material, or a mass of imperfectly-formed white crystals, in the centre. Occasionally thin veins of a spar, like that of Derbyshire, ran through the slate. Springs, depositing sulphur, issued in some places from the rock; one hill in particular had its sides streaked with what appeared at a distance to be this sulphur deposited from water. Near one of these sulphur-springs the rock was white with innumerable minute needle-shaped crystals; very soluble in water, and almost tasteless. Though fixed strata of sandstone were only seen once or twice, yet the immense boulders in the river-beds were almost entirely composed of this rock. Here and there, among the sandstone boulders, would be one of very hard limestone crowded with minute fossil shells. From this it would appear that the rocks higher up the stream are of sandstone, and higher still of limestone. No opportunity was afforded of verifying this conjecture, as our journey did not extend beyond the region of slate, and stopped where the river was yet of considerable magnitude.

In the country immediately on the western side of the higher, or slate, mountains we were shown a place where fire issued from the earth. The seat of this phenomenon is about half way up a hill, some 500 feet or 600 feet in height, and occupies a circular patch of ground, about twelve feet in diameter. Over such a space the soil is baked hard, and cracked in all directions by the heat. Vapour, smelling like petroleum, issues from these cracks, and, when sufficiently concentrated, burns with a bright yellow flame, varying from six inches to twelve inches high, giving off little or no smoke or smell.

In returning to the coast, and after leaving the highlands, our road for about fifteen miles lay through the tract of small hills already mentioned. They nowhere attained an elevation over 200 feet. The view from the summit of the last range of higher hills was very striking. Behind were the mountains we had left; in front&emdash;north, west, and south&emdash;were these singular hills, stretching as far as we could see. No arrangement into chains and valleys seemed to exist; but each hill, or rather mound, was separate, and unconnected with its neighbours, accident seeming to have determined its position. The whole reminded one of the waves in a cross sea. Streamlets and dry watercourses seamed their sides, and gave an opportunity of ascertaining the strange character of their composition, and assigning it to the probable cause. On inspection, they proved to be made up of a fine stratified clay, resting on an exceedingly friable and imperfectly-formed sandstone. Groups of shells, similar to those found on the Formosan coast at the present day, were imbedded at places in the clay, and lay loose in the beds of the streamlets running through it. A large species of oyster was met with in great quantities; also a minute whelk, like one very common in the salt-water lagoon at Takow. The loose sandstone was also in places rich in fossil-shells of a recent date. No coral was found. The western boundary of this strange country is very abrupt, and marked by a river. No elevation further than a gentle undulation is met between it and Taewanfoo.

None of the facts I have thus unscientifically stated offer an explanation of what is looked upon with no small alarm by those interested in the prosperity of this part of Formosa. I allude to the rapid filling up of the harbours on the western coast, and the formation of shoals between it and the Pescadores.

I am credibly informed that at several places along the coast, where good harbours, with fifteen feet [p. 165] and twenty feet of water, existed a few years ago, there is now not sufficient depth to float a junk. At Taewanfoo, according to Dutch and other records, the sea formerly extended to the fort inside the city. Now the beach is five miles from that place, and where ships once anchored there is now but a level plain of mud. At Takow the lagoon is seen to shallow year by year; and though the practice of raising artificial oyster-beds may partly account for this, yet, on the other hand, were the water deeper, these beds could not be made, as it is only after a bank has risen that the stones used in their formation can be placed upon it.

From the evidence of the fossils contained in the tract of low clay hills described above, it cannot be doubted that at no very remote period, geologically speaking, these hills were under the sea. The rivers, rushing through the great slate mountains of the (present) interior, brought with them a deposit of fine sand and mud, which formed a layer over the original sea-bottom, which layer in time attained a thickness of 100 feet or 200 feet. By subterranean causes, this was elevated, and the sea thrown back. The sea then washed the foot of this elevated plain, and the mountains, instead of forming the coast, were already far from it. In time the rain and the mountain-streams, acting on the soft clay of the plain, furrowed it in every direction, and caused it to receive its present appearance of miniature and irregular hills. The detritus from this process, together with that coming down from the mountains, was deposited in the sea, and on a second retiring of water, or elevation of land, formed what is now the great plain of Formosa. This process of deposit is still continuing, and the sea is again being filled up, naturally more rapidly than before, the mud and sand being drawn from a more extensive area, the length of the coast line at the same time not increasing. This is scarcely hypothesis; for one who has travelled through the country cannot avoid having the facts and conclusions thrust upon him.

The actions of rivers in filling up the sea and creating new land is well illustrated by the gradual extension of the coast at and north of Shanghai. There the immense quantities of sand and mud brought down by the rapidly-flowing waters of the river are deposited the moment they arrive at the less-active waters of the sea. Shoals are formed; but the volumes of water are so enormous that they possess strength sufficient to cut new channels, and those of a depth adequate to the requirements of commerce. In Formosa the process is identical; but unfortunately the body of water is comparatively insignificant, and lacks the power of forming new highways for trade. As I have already stated, Takow is the only harbour, properly so called, on the west coast, and it evidently owes its existence to the accidental upheaving of those immense masses of coral and limestone, Ape's Hill and Saracen's Head, and the formations of a long, narrow spit of sand behind the latter, uniting it with a somewhat similar elevation some ten miles to the south. Into the lagoon thus formed three or four small rivers empty themselves, their waters being finally discharged into the sea through the channel between Saracen's Head and Ape's Hill. Fortunately, for some reasons, this channel is narrow, and bounded by rocks; the current is, therefore, strong and deposit prevented. But the inside of the lagoon, being broad, is rapidly shoaling, and outside a dangerous bar is forming, natural causes being aided by the inertness of the Chinese officials, who take no steps to prevent the discharge of ballast or the formation of oyster beds. Unless some action be taken in the matter, I fear that the only safe harbour on this side of Formosa will ere long be reduced to the same condition as that which formerly existed at Taewanfoo.